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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Opening Day in the Nickel City

Buffalo’s status as a sporting laughingstock is pretty well established. Our two most prominent teams are known for their follies and incompetence of unspeakable magnitude. The Bills I’ve already covered, and at this point it would not surprise me that other Buffalo people are just waiting for the team to leave they we can renounce them for good and quit paying for their stadium, a behemoth shell which, despite being able to hold an awesome tailgate party, costs millions in taxpayer revenue while being used on all of eight days every year. The Sabres are the city’s team now. They may not have won the Stanley Cup, but they’ve established themselves as a team that can beat you down in any given game.

Today, however, hope springs eternal, for it is Opening Day in Major League baseball. For Buffalo, that means we will soon be celebrating a full-time Buffalo team which was established long before the Bills and Sabres were even dreams on their owners’ minds. A very successful team that has won its league ten times dating all the way back to the 30’s. (1933, 1936, 1938, 1947, 1949, 1957, 1961, 1997, 1998, 2004.)

The Buffalo Bisons may be a mere Triple A team, but they provide one of the great bargains in all of professional sports. Their current stadium, Pilot Field (and no, in Buffalo we don’t give a shit what the sign says), was the very first of today’s retro ballpark craze in the majors; Camden Yards, the first of the retro major league fields, was based on Pilot Field’s design. Pilot Field was built back in 1987, when Buffalo was being seen as a serious candidate for a major league expansion franchise which eventually turned into the Florida Marlins. There are less than 20,000 seats in Pilot Field, but the field was built so an extra deck or two could be built in a real hurry if we won that major league team. But we didn’t, so our minor league affiliate to the New York Mets moved in, and their inhospitable old stadium, War Memorial Stadium, was torn down.

Pilot Field is known for its major league amenities, so this means that in Buffalo, you can afford major league quality baseball in the front row without taking out a second mortgage. The best seats in the place cost less than $15.

The Bisons’ current affiliation with the Mets is ironic since so many of the baseball fans in Buffalo are loyal to the Yankees. But during the 90’s, it was the Bisons’ association with the Cleveland Indians that was able to feed so many quality players to the team that won two American League Pennants. The two teams complimented each other perfectly, and Buffalo won three titles during their tenure with the Tribe. We may not have a major league team here, but that doesn’t mean Buffalo isn’t a damn fine baseball city. The Bisons frequently draw over 1,000,000 fans per year, which is phenomenal considering the minor leaguers play fewer games in a stadium with far fewer seats.

I’ve mentioned before that I have an incredible loyalty to the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox. But when I look at the prices I would have to pay to attend a game at Yankee Stadium or Comiskey Park (Chicago doesn’t care what its signs say either), I can’t help but think I’ve got the best game in town, right here in little Buffalo.

On another end of the spectrum, Buffalo also has a National Lacrosse League team called the Bandits. They began play in 1992 and have won four titles, along the way picking up an immense share of popularity among those who enjoy alternate sports. Lacrosse has a considerable following in the northeast and in Canada, so Buffalo people feel no shame in playing up the successes of the Bandits.

Information Superhighway – This is Not the Ending

When I first threw This is Not the Ending, the latest album from Chicago indie rock band Information Superhighway, into my CD player, I was doing it only semi-blindly. The prog rock band with the name trapped in late 90’s nostalgia is highly regarded and I had a bit of familiarity with their work, as well as the independent work of vocalist Leslie Beukelman and composer Rob Clearfield. My greatest fear was that Clearfield’s mellow, densely textured melodies would end up shackling Beukelman’s soaring, versatile voice. I needn’t have worried.

Beukelman’s versatility is a rare gift in itself, and through four years of training at Roosevelt University in vocal performance, Beukelman is a musical jack of all trades and a master of every one of them as well. She and Clearfield also have the strength of their chemistry, the crux of Information Superhighway, and so they can anticipate and bounce off each other very naturally. This isn’t to detract from the work of their talented bandmates, bassist Patrick Mulcahy and drummer John Smillie, but Beukelman and Clearfield are the faces of Information Superhighway. They are associated with the band the same way Aerosmith is synonymous with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, The Rolling Stones with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and Gun n’ Roses with Axl Rose and Slash Buckethead.

In the songs on This is Not the Ending, Beukelman operates under her own musical instincts. Clearfield, Mulcahy, and Smillie create the rhythms and Beukelman cuts loose as she sees necessary, restraining herself sometimes and letting her voice tear across the sky at others. Clearfield, playing the mad tech wizard, assigns himself to an assortment of instruments. Yes, guitars are keyboards are normal, but accordions and singing bowls are not.

A singing bowl is a concave metal bowl which the, uh, singing-bowl-ist taps and strokes with a short wooden rod. It produces a variety of high-pitched musical sounds through vibrations. It can produce sound at a constant rate if the rod is moved consistently along the edge of the bowl’s rim. I heard the singing bowl in the background in a few spots throughout This is Not the Ending.

An apt description of Information Superhighway’s music would probably be Pink Floyd without the painkillers and weed. The closest This is Not the Ending comes to traditional fast, hard guitar rock is Almost Morning, the opener. Beukelman lets her voice build gradually by verse, Clearfield becomes Trent Reznor with his experimentation, even adding a few repetitive guitar riffs in the middle, and Smillie spends the song hammering away in an impossible paradox; he attacks his drum set with the precision of Neil Peart, and also the ferocity and reckless abandon of Keith Moon.

The four remaining songs on This is Not the Ending are more traditional of Information Superhighway’s sound. The music in general isn’t quite as hard, and instead of blasting through songs in a blistering rage, the band lets the music drift and play out to a more organic conclusion. At times, the music drifts like a whisper, with the softness and speed of a single cloud on a sunny day, almost hovering. The Real Things, Soft and Not Knowing, and Your Voice – Part II do this more than the fourth song, This is Beginning – which is more experimentalism – but all of them are based in that basic setup.

Soft and Not Knowing is the album’s first single, probably because it’s the only one cut for the length of a single. It clocks in at 3:27 in a collection of songs which are otherwise all over six minutes. It also has a much more mainstream sound. I assume it was meant to be that way because it doesn’t do anything to challenge its audience. There are no sudden melody disruptions or key changes. The band plays it completely straight, and so it’s heard like a pleasant lullaby.

This is Beginning features a lot of sonic whooping and whirling. Clearfield channels Trent Reznor again, and Smillie goes to town on his drums.

Beukelman is the clear star in The Real Things and Your Voice – Part II. The music is more relegated to the background than in the other songs, and it frequently fades in and out. The Real Things is the more experimental of the two, featuring white noise and and Mulcahy on an acoustic bass. Your Voice – Part II is my favorite song from This is Not the Ending. It’s a soft, soulful jazz ballad with the keyboard as its main backing instrument, and Beukelman sings at her introspective best. It’s another one which could be described as having a more mainstream sound.

Their name may be trapped in the late 90’s, but Information Superhighway’s music and originality are well ahead of the curve. Their acclaimed status in Chicago is well-earned, and it’s well worth the effort to hear them when swinging by Chicago. After all, they’re huge in Afghanistan.

A Tale of Two Winter Cities

Springtime in Buffalo was met with Ma Nature’s traditional greeting for New York state: Snow. Seven inches to be precise, along with a nod in the national news. Because snow in Buffalo is so unusual and the people in Buffalo run around outside screaming “Hark, the sky is falling!” I’m sure.

Must have been a very slow news day. Buffalo ends up in the national news at least a couple of times every winter for being completely buried. If seven inches dropped in North Carolina or Georgia or Maryland, it would be a complete burial by the standards of those places. But up here in the harsh winter crannies of New York, seven inches is barely a dusting. Even pausing to brush the car off, seven inches doesn’t so much as slow down rush hour traffic.

As it happens, I was still in Chicago during the “Snowpocalypse” in February. The coverage of that winter storm was the kind reserved for real disasters like the recent tsunami in Japan or Hurricane Katrina. The city was in the news for a week. A week afterward, the Chicago weather was back in the news again because the temperature had jumped up to the high 50’s and nearly all the snow was melted.

The Snowpocalypse dumped over 20 inches onto Chicago and the populace didn’t know what to do. My opinion of Chicago’s vaunted broad-shouldered winter toughness is rather low, and one of the things I quickly learned was that the reason so many people believe in the myth of winter-tough Chicago was because Chicagoans constantly compliment themselves on it. They are classic cases of talking the talk but saying “I could, but I don’t wanna” when challenged to back it up.

I probably wouldn’t be pointing this out if Chicagoans were a bit more honest about their assessment of their ability to weather a winter. But Chicago doesn’t seem to make a distinction between the toughest large metropolis and actual toughness. The city businesses begin to close down if so much as three inches hits the pavement. The city services slow down at the first sign of a snowflake. A few years ago, Chicago ran out of its snow removal budget, and this presented me with two thoughts which I still can’t quite wrap my mind around: That the big, tough, broad-shouldered, windy winter city didn’t have enough foresight to prepare for such a scenario, and that city budgets have whole piles of money set aside for the sole purpose of getting snow out of the way.

Buffalo was always so good at snow removal that I had never stopped to think of it as a city service before. The one time the white stuff piled up faster than the city could remove it was during the infamous Gridlock Monday winter storm of 2000, and that was only because of the rapid pace of the snow buildup and the timing of the storm, which occurred during the evening rush hour. That was the only time I’ve ever seen people in Buffalo spend their nights at their workplaces and schools. Those who were trapped in their cars simply got out and walked, leaving their cars behind to be dug out the following morning. My mother spent the night at her workplace, and I helped dig her car out. My father just barely made it home.

City-slowing winter storms in Buffalo, however, are anomalies. Buffalo gets hit by at least a couple of storms per year which drop 20 inches. We know the drill here and we routinely work it to perfection. 20 inches means it’s time to break out the shovels and snowblowers. It seems the national media makes a bigger deal out of snow in Buffalo than is warranted. It paints pictures of people terrified and confused by the snow, who stock up on canned goods for storms driving snowmobiles to the stores, and sit nervously in front of the traffic reports, waiting for the opening to get out. But the reality in Buffalo is that we break open a cold six-pack, and the only time we watch The Weather Channel is to make fun of the poor bozos in North Carolina as they slam their cars into telephone poles at five mph. (And yes, we really do those things.) Although we frequently do wish for warmer weather, those are arbitrary wishes which are often shrugged off immediately afterward with the phrase “It’s Buffalo, what are ya gonna do?”

As for Chicago – scared, panicky, confused during slight dustings, 20 inches really can be interpreted as the end of the world. The Snowpocalypse made for an interesting look at a post-rapture Chicago. The largest, busiest streets in the city were completely barren for two days. Meanwhile, I grabbed my camera and had fun. The Snowpocalypse contained a simple truth that Chicago is too busy kidding itself to admit: That all those national stereotypes which are applied to snow-buried Buffalo are far better applied to Chicago.

The Moonshine War

´╗┐There are times I think Buffalo wants its people to be alcoholics. People here learn about the relatively unique drinking culture of the city from earlier ages, and it becomes a major point of pride in Buffalo to walk around a grocery store in a different region wondering aloud where the beer is hidden. If we’re in a bar in a different state, we vocally express our shock about the early closing of the bar come the 2 AM last call.

The dominating grocery branches in western New York, Tops and Wegman’s, line shelves with beer. Last call in Buffalo is 4 AM all around. People from Buffalo are frequently given the impression that Buffalo is the only city on the planet that does things like this.

The day on which Buffalonians will stop acting shocked at 2 AM closing times will probably never come, but it should. By the time most of us get to the required 21 years of age to have our first alcoholic drink, we’ve already been drinking in Fort Erie or Niagara Falls for the preceding two years anyway because 19 is the drinking age in Canada. At that point, the shock at reaching 21 in Buffalo is that the bar does NOT close down at 2 AM.

The last call is Chicago is 2 AM, but that is simply the common closing time. When you consider the variety of people who migrate to Chicago and get into the culture, you begin to realize how absurd the idea of a city that size not having bars open until 4 AM absurd. Chicago did in fact have handfuls of 4 AM bars, as well as 6 AM bars and all night bars. Bragging about 4 AM closing times suddenly became pointless. Pulling an all-night bender in Chicago is perfectly possible once you know where everything is.

Buffalonians are also proud to have grocery stores which sell beer, but after setting foot in Chicago that boast is not only pointless but downright foolish. On my first trip to a grocery store after returning to Buffalo, I noticed a large section devoted to international beers. Most of the beer people buy from grocery stores in Buffalo is the popular stuff, and the grocery stores selling exotic beers is a new idea here. And taking the word “exotic” in context is important here. Yes, there are beers available from countless different countries, but they’re being sold to a populace which thinks of Ohio as exotic. Great Lakes beer, which is brewed in Cleveland, hasn’t been around in Buffalo for very long. In Jewel and Dominick’s – the respective Chicago versions of Tops and Wegman’s – these beers have been readily available for years.

The Illinois state government seems to have a more laissez-faire attitude toward alcohol sales in general than the New York state government, and this is more apparent in the grocery stores than anywhere else. The alcohol your average Chicago grocer is allowed to sell you isn’t limited to just beer. It isn’t actually limited at all, really. At the average Dominick’s, wine was both more prevalent and more available than beer, and the better known brands of whiskey, rum, Irish cream, and vodka were also available. Dominick’s even served samples of wine and beer, an act which in New York may be worth jail time outside of a speakeasy. If the alcohol stores in Chicago weren’t selling the more local brands, there wouldn’t be any need at all for them.

For all the ways Chicago bests Buffalo in its drinking, though, Buffalo does hold an advantage in a couple of areas which are key to anyone from a border city. For all of the foreign beer you can buy in Chicago, it would seem like Chicago’s attitude toward Canada is that Canada doesn’t count as foreign. My de facto first question upon walking into a new bar in Chicago quickly became “got anything Canadian?” when I figured out the bars never heard of my favorite beers. Even most of the bars with a lot of international beers I went to neglected to sell brands from the great white north. The very few that knew Canadian brands also treated them like foreign brands; they were more expensive and sold strictly by the bottle, concepts which are unacceptable in Buffalo.

Buffalo also falls under the same minimum drinking age as Chicago, but it has an important trump card: Canada. While the 4 AM last call time never did manage to stretch across the northern border, a Buffalo kid can drink legally at age 19 if he’s willing to drive a few extra miles. The Peace Bridge takes us to Fort Erie, and the Rainbow Bridge allows people to cross to the more urbane part of Niagara Falls. Clifton Hill has a lot of highly regarded nightclubs and drinking points, and Casino Niagara sits right at the end of the Rainbow Bridge. Buffalo residents have access to a special kind of driver’s license which allows easier navigation around those damned passport laws.

The most memorable alcohol boast a Buffalo kid can make in Chicago is being able to drink up at Niagara Falls. People take special trips to Niagara Falls for weddings and honeymoons, once in a lifetime events. They go to photograph the waterfalls in all their powerful majesty during globetrots. Niagara Falls is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, but in Buffalo, kids two years short of legal drinking treat it like just another hole in the wall.

What Your Favorite Sports Teams Say About You

As Rob pulled up to my little haven in West Seneca to pick me up on St. Patrick’s Day, I threw on my Buffalo Bisons jersey. My Bisons jersey is one of my better togs because it can give a sleek sheen to an otherwise somewhat frumpled outfit. It was also St. Patrick’s Day, and the jersey’s green sleeves and piping and orange lettering met my immediate need for Irish colors. Rob, being a close follower of professional sports, didn’t take long to spot it and ask “Oh, are you re-establishing your loyalties now?”

“Hey, you did catch the Bears shirt I’m wearing under this, right?” I asked him. It certainly sounded natural as a response, and as a follower of professional sports myself, I did feel a bit defensive.

“Oh, so you’re saying you’re a Buffalo guy on the outside, but true Chicago on the inside,” he concluded. I flashed him my piratical half-grin half-sneer which I reserve to tell people to go to hell in the most affectionate way possible.

This is something sports fans who move from one metro area to another struggle with, and they all find different solutions. It’s said that a real fan never leaves his team, but in reality, many do. Some of the ones who don’t simply adopt the more geographically convenient team while continuing to cheer for the team they watched and loved since childhood. My mother took this route; she grew up on Long Island, embracing the hot new teams in town when they arrived: The New York Jets in football and the New York Mets in baseball. Since Buffalo’s baseball team is the minor league Bisons, she didn’t have to worry about turning her back on the Mets. But she also adopted the local NFL team, the Buffalo Bills, and she supports both the Bills and the Jets. This drives a lot of locals crazy because the teams play in the same division. My situation was different in some ways and similar in others, but here is my ultimate analysis and the rationale behind it. I love all of these teams, but if you wonder who I would cheer for when they play against each other (and people do) these are my choices.

Hockey: Buffalo Sabres/Chicago Blackhawks
I adopted the Blackhawks upon my move to Chicago in large part because I had no major reason to hate them, and the Sabres and Blackhawks play in different conferences. It was a little unusual because the Sabres were in the first of their two best seasons, both of which culminated with conference finals appearances with one President’s Trophy, while the Blackhawks were deeply mired in the basement and weren’t looking like they could so much as reach the bottom step to begin the ascent out. They clearly weren’t going anywhere quickly, and indifference and contempt for the team’s mismanagement had reached such a level that Chicago’s minor league hockey team, the Chicago Wolves, were outdrawing their NHL brothers. (The Wolves, by the way, won the Calder Cup, their league title, in 2008) Despite their ineptitude, I was attracted to their storied history, colorful look, and hard-hitting image. Being a naturally jaded Buffalo kid, I could take more hockey ineptitude and looked forward to watching my newly adopted team lose.

Then in late 2007, something unexpected happened. Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz died. Bill’s business methods were aged, and he went as far as to black out the team’s home games. His position as the team’s owner was taken up by his son Rocky, who gave the Blackhawks a major overhaul which resulted in a sudden turnaround. In 2008, the team was a potential challenger. In 2009, the Hawks were serious contenders. And in 2010, I saw them do in just a few years what I am spending my life still waiting for the Sabres to do: Drink beer from the Stanley Cup. It helped that their star player, Patrick Kane, was raised in Buffalo. But I never played little league hockey on the ice of United Center, which I’ve done on the Sabres’ home ice. I’ve never yelled and screamed and felt frustration with a bad season in Chicago, which becomes indifferent instead of frustrated with bad hockey.

Decision: Sabres. I love the Blackhawks to death. I wholeheartedly support them and wear their crest with pride. But my family and friends all share my favorite hockey memories with the Sabres, not the Blackhawks.

Baseball: New York Yankees/Chicago White Sox
That I – or anyone in Buffalo, really – cheer the Yankees makes no sense whatsoever. They’re an uber-rich global team from the part of the state that no self-respecting Buffalonian can stand. They prefer offensive flair to gritty, dirty hands scrapping and defense, hire reputed cheaters without a second thought, and require their players to be faceless monoliths. But the Yankees played a big role in my social development when I started trying to crawl out of my social hole in college. Yes, folks in my college fought over traditional issues – the abortion debate was starting to crack under extreme pressure, and George W. Bush was fighting to rally support for an invasion of Iraq. One of the other hot issues, however, was the fight over whether MLB should instate a salary cap. The Yankees were the team most of us worshipped, and knowing the summer escapades of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and the rest allowed me access to a lot of pre-class conversations that otherwise would have flown over my head. When I worked for PBS, my team bonded over the Yankees. They were the one thing we all had in common.

When I moved to Chicago, I knew I wasn’t going to cheer for the cutesy frat boy Cubs on the North Side. Their image wasn’t befitting of a rust belt factory kid. In the White Sox, I discovered the grit, passion, character, and underdog flair the Yankees lacked. I loved that the players could be themselves and yet play a win or die style of baseball. I loved that the peoples’ promoter, Bill Veeck, had once owned the team. I loved the exploding scoreboard and the doomed promotions and the overall hard rock band edge of the team. I cheered them hard, and occasionally against the Yankees, as they marched to their 2008 division title in the most thrilling fashion possible.

Decision: Way too close to call. I clung to the Yankees as a link to Buffalo when I was in Chicago, and I’m doing the same with the White Sox now. It’s as equal as it gets, and placing one above the other will depend on my mood when they meet on the baseball diamond.

Football: Buffalo Bills/Chicago Bears
Buffalo Bills is a stupid name, and the team itself still loses for winning. The arguable greatest running back of all time, the first man to ever rush for 2000 yards in a single season (and still the only one to do it in 14 games) is a murderer. No other team ever made it to four straight Super Bowls, and I guarantee that if that ever happens again, that other team isn’t going to lose all four. These I can handle. I draw the line at the Toronto series, which robs the team of a home game and puts them into what is considered enemy territory in a sports context. I cheer for the Bills, but if you come to Buffalo and suggest the team is purposely tanking to squander any goodwill toward it to make moving easier, we’ll actually agree.

The Bears were one of the founding members of the NFL. They won their division when I first came to Chicago, and during their Super Bowl season, they were just a joy to watch. They made everything they did look easy. Then they lost the Super Bowl, but gee, it isn’t like I hadn’t watched my home team do THAT before! Even so, it’s a reputation thing: The Bills garner laughs and contempt everywhere, even when they’re doing well. The Bears garner admiration and respect from everyone, except maybe Packers fans.

Decision: You’re best off asking me this again once the Bills move out of Buffalo.

Basketball: New York Knicks/Chicago Bulls
Basketball is the sport in Buffalo that’s more chosen than inherited. I chose the Knicks simply for my state loyalty – in other words, it’s just easier. Most basketball watchers here align themselves with the Boston Celtics. But as my understanding of the sport grew, I began to appreciate the mental toughness of the team. They could never beat the Bulls during my lifetime, but they were a hard playing team that, after those tough, heartbreaking losses, would get up and fight again. Also, even during the doomed Isiah Thomas days, they were entertaining. But they have two major strikes against them: First of all, most people in upstate New York believe they have more in common culturally with the midwest, so being in the most overhyped section of New York City isn’t considered a good thing. Second, the Knicks share an arena with a hockey team I hate – the New York Rangers.

With the success of the Bulls in the 90’s, it’s easy to forget they weren’t always a glamor team. They were the scrappy little team that could. Like the Knicks, they always got back up after falling repeatedly to Detroit in the 80’s, and 1991, they got back up and went all the way. Then they did it again five more times, and in doing so, they became one of the great success stories in sports. The Bulls were never supposed to contend, but not only did they completely reverse their fortunes, they did it in a way which made them popular throughout the world. They were Chicago’s third attempt at a basketball team, and they were destined to be doormats forever. But they became a team synonymous with the sport they play, and the greatest player of all time.

Decision: Bulls. I don’t want Michael Jordan to kick my ass.

Ultimately, though, I’m like my mother, a fan of them all, even through rivalries. But my bandwagon is now full, so this is it, no matter where I go from here.

Searching for Grace in Buffalo

The centerpiece of my life in Chicago was a little spiritual community called Wicker Park Grace, and I’m about to go out of my mind trying to replace it. Wicker Park Grace filled a deep spiritual void. I had always been rather overtly religious, an adherent to dogma that was more or less unquestioning. I say more or less because no matter what dogma I was following at the time, I would always end up questioning it and challenging it, no matter how often I was told that I had to clam up and just believe, or my wonderful, loving god was going to toss my soul into an eternity of fire and brimstone.

I ultimately found myself following three religions in my life, confident through all three that it was the right one. In all of them, doubts crept up, and I kept trying to suppress them, confident that all of my questions would be answered on the day of my own judgement. Well, for two of them I believed in a day of judgement. My third and final religion was atheism, which comes with expectations of beliefs all of its own, complete with dogmatized ideas and people who evangelize and admonish you for thinking anything different. I still refuse to acknowledge the existence of any god, but after reading about the de-baptism ceremonies so many atheists are subjecting themselves to, I called bullshit, it’s now a religion, over and out.

Wicker Park Grace was the first place I ever knew that allowed and encouraged me to ask my questions. I had stumbled into the place trying to get to a meeting with a political organization I was with. Since the organization didn’t have a home at the time, it was switching its meeting places regularly, and I showed up at the wrong place. Not wanting to take the walk back home through the cold at the time, I accepted an invitation to a prayer service by the minister, Nanette, who I had actually met a couple of months before. I learned at that service that I wasn’t the only one who had the urge to ask questions about the scriptures and traditions my church and mosque had fed me. That day I began another journey of the soul, one which destroyed every boundary my mentally programmed divinity had ever erected. I questioned and pondered without any fear of any god’s wrath for the first time in my life, criticized every scripture and belief which I had tried to rationalize before, and was encouraged to do it by Nanette herself.

Many of the people at Wicker Park Grace had been hurt, lost, and otherwise angered by faiths they had tried hard to believe in. They became my good friends and supporters. At my final service at Wicker Park Grace, I was given a public sendoff blessing, a ritual which was truly touching.

This movement, called the Emergent movement, is relatively new, and that means it hasn’t popped up in a lot of places yet. The loss of Wicker Park Grace was a hard blow because it started me on a path I want to stay on. Each Emergent church is different, and so I realize that looking for a place exactly like Wicker Park Grace is a dead end. My newly set path requires open-mindedness to other religious formats. One of the first things I did when I arrived in Buffalo was begin a search for a like-minded spiritual community.

Last week, my folks were kind enough to take me to Trinity, a church on Delaware Avenue. At Wicker Park Grace, we had a service called Jazz Vespers in which we recited poetry and had musicians play meditative jazz music. The service at Trinity that day used the same basic idea and layout, only they had used a real piano to play the music, and my mother said she enjoyed watching me talk to random people after the service. I would like to visit another place called Unity, which is considerably further north on Delaware Avenue, but as I’m currently in the suburbs, I have to be patient and wait for my chance.

This is more than about just finding another Emergent community, though. It’s also about finding an Emergent community that’s right for me, and trying to force something that isn’t there will just cause the same sense of unease I found as a Christian, Muslim, and Atheist. And so, as I set into the newest chapter of my spiritual life, I’m nervously looking forward to the people I could meet in Buffalo, finding a community where I’m free to ask any question and practice any ritual without repercussion.

I’m never going to forget Wicker Park Grace. The message, openness, and friends I made there left the largest void in my heart after leaving Chicago. It’s because of Wicker Park Grace that I’ve learned to embrace spiritual skepticism as my primary spiritual identity. I was lost through three faiths when I walked into that first prayer service. Wicker Park Grace didn’t show me the light, but it showed me that being lost may be the best way to see clearly.

Buffalo’s Response to a New Orleans Mardi Gras: St. Patrick’s Day

South Buffalo is Buffalo’s own version of Brooklyn. Brooklyn is officially a part of New York City, but it retains such a unique distinction that its denizens don’t allow themselves to tell people they’re from New York City. They’re from Brooklyn, damn it, and being tied down in name with those greedy fat cats over in Manhattan is annoying. So it goes in South Buffalo; no resident or native of the city’s lower third is ever from Buffalo. They’re all from South Buffalo, a culture away and geographically separated by the Buffalo River to make sure the Irish immigrant population doesn’t mix with the good, respectable Americans who were born in this country. This being the case, South Buffalo maintains a very powerful Irish flavor which is especially obvious during the Christian holy season of Lent, and during St. Patrick’s Day.

In the Irish Heritage District, Irish flags add flair and color to street lights, and street names are given in both English and Gaelic. Traditional Irish dance academies like Rince Na Tiarna and Clann Na Cara provide links to the culture of the motherland, and the people identify their areas by the closest Irish Catholic parish.

In Chicago, they dye the mouth of the Chicago River green and throw a parade. Nice gestures, but all they also did more to remind me that in Chicago, St. Patrick’s Day is seen as just that – a day. You wear green, uncork a Guinness, call everyone “lad,” and hope your hangover the following day in manageable. St. Patrick’s Day in South Buffalo is less a day with a weekend parade than a festival which lasts through the entire following week. It is comparable to the observation of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The traditional music and dancing appears in many places in the neighborhood, the food is more readily available, and Guinness, Harp, and Bailey’s flow. Some of the restaurants and pubs even serve food and drink with a green tint. The only thing it lacks in comparison to a New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration is the publicity. St. Patrick’s Day in South Buffalo is serious business.

The shadow of St. Patrick’s Day was looming by the time I arrived in Buffalo. On my last full day in Chicago – which happened to be Mardi Gras (with my actual departure on Ash Wednesday, which seems appropriate) – I was expressing my thankfulness to my friends for being able to get to Buffalo in time for the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. I had anticipated the music and beer and the opportunity to get back in touch with the Irish community that had played such a dominant role in my childhood.

Rob was good enough to pick me up from my locale in West Seneca isolation and take me to the old neighborhood. When we got the the Buffalo Irish Center, where many of the big festivities were taking place, he introduced me to a handful of his other friends. Rob had been impressed with the way I inserted myself into Chicago’s countercultural elite. He told me how cool it was that I was taking an active role, weaving myself into the fabric of my adopted hometown. He didn’t tell me that he was doing the same thing in Buffalo, but to a lesser extent. Rob talked with pride about his competitive barbeque team, Buffalo Meatheads, and gave me extensive crash lessons on the local music and flavor.

Penny Whiskey’s Irish folk/rock fusion provided the evening’s soundtrack with a combination of traditional ballads and original rock. The band used bagpipes and a flute in their set while finding enough clout to add a Riverdance song to an AC/DC song. Rince Na Tiarna danced. After Rince Na Tiarna’s set, the general public took to the dance floor itself in small waves. Rob and I only drank mildly; I had a glass of Harp, having drank my obligatory Guinness earlier in the evening, and a small cup of Bailey’s. It was Val, Rob girlfriend, who gave everyone the most memorable drunkenness anecdote of the evening. After one too many rum and Cokes, she slid off her chair. While walking back to the car, she complained about her big toe being stuck to her sock, removed her shoes and socks and threw them aside, saying it was fine if no one picked them up (I picked them up anyway), only to wonder where they were just before getting to the car. Rob decided to take her back to his house before dropping me off.

Rob and I both spent the better part of the evening explaining my absence. It was more often than not Rob who initiated those conversations, probably just to explain who I was and where I’ve been to people I might have otherwise known fairly well myself if I stayed in Buffalo. The two common refrains for us were “He’s been in Chicago the last few years,” which is what Rob said when introducing me to his other friends, and “The economy there tanked too,” my reply to the inevitable questions about why I came back. People were confused about why I would want to leave a 21st century cosmopolis like Chicago, the third largest city in the United States, but even so, I was treated like the prodigal son.